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Al Baker's comments 'not a good joke': Flybe chief executive

One of the two women on IATA's 31-member governing board has described as "not a good joke" controversial remarks by new chair Akbar Al Baker about the suitability of females to run airlines.

However, Flybe chief executive Christine Ourmieres-Widener hopes that the comments of Qatar Airways' boss will "cause an awareness that we can build on" about the barriers women face in aviation.

"I have worked with Akbar for many years and I would say it was not really a good joke," she told an Aviation Club luncheon in London today.

On 5 June, at the airline association's annual general meeting in Sydney, Al Baker responded to a question about gender equality by saying that "of course" his own carrier "has to be led by a man because it is a very challenging position".

Although Al Baker apologised and accused the media of "sensationalising" his remarks, they have highlighted claims of top-down sexism in the industry.

Ourmieres-Widener told the Aviation Club that "I still see inequalities at every meeting I attend". She adds that, in addition to the need for "a culture that will allow more women to be promoted", more young females must be encouraged to enter the industry. This could be done by promoting the study of science, technology, engineering and maths among girls, and persuading them to consider careers as pilots and aviation engineers.

A male-dominated industry is making it harder to tackle a shortage of key professionals, she says, adding: "If we get more women [into the industry] we might just solve the recruitment problem."

Ourmieres-Widener also called for an end to the UK's air passenger duty, which she describes as "crazy", claiming it adds an average of 15% – and sometimes as much as 50% – to Flybe's fares.

She suggested abolishing the tax for domestic flights initially. "It would just take a bit of guts," she says. "But we are killing our business at a time when we are saying the UK is open for business."

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